THE REALISATION that they were no longer regarded as a bigger club than Charlton Athletic was one of the more painful moments in a depressing week for West Ham United. While whoever is eventually unveiled as Harry Redknapp's successor will doubtless be introduced as "our first choice", there can be no doubt that Charlton's Alan Curbishley was the perfect replacement.
In a year's time, if the South London club have had no more than a middling season, he might be more tempted. This time around, the combination of directors' impatience and manager's frustration that led to Redknapp leaving Upton Park last week cost them the chance of securing the man best suited to the job.
Redknapp, in his Racing Post column yesterday, revealed the reasons for his departure, des-cribing it as the "toughest decision I have ever had to make".
"The chairman, Terry Brown, and I had a real bust-up on Tuesday over what was needed for the club to be a competitive force," he wrote. "I said we needed to spend pounds 12-14 million on three or four quality players just to avoid standing still, and obviously he thought that I was putting him under pressure.
"But everyone is going to be spending fortunes between now and August, and with two powers in Fulham and Blackburn coming up, it's going to be a hell of a challenge just surviving. We had some of the Rio Ferdinand money [pounds 18m from Leeds] but we needed more."
Despite suggesting that Frank Lampard might move to Leeds or Aston Villa after the departure from Upton Park of his father, Redknapp did not anticipate a player exodus. "They are all good pros who want to do well for the club regardless of who is in charge. If that is Alan Curbishley then that would be a smart move and he would be my favourite until he rules himself out 100 per cent."
But it seems that by the time Curbishley attended a reserve game at The Valley on Wednesday evening - against West Ham, of all people - he had already made up his mind to continue the outstanding work of the past 10 years rather than return to where he spent half that time as a player.
There can be no doubt that the Hammers still have a place in the Charlton manager's heart. Like his assistant, Mervyn Day, another graduate of the "Academy", he was particularly proud to have done the double over them in his club's previous Premiership season two years ago, and was mortified to have lost 5-0 at Upton Park last Boxing Day.
What no one could know at that time was that the result would represent the high point of West Ham's League season, leaving them eighth in the table, and the pits of Charlton's. Having seen his charges slip to 13th, amid worries that they might be dragged into another relegation struggle, Curbishley then demonstrated his managerial ability, immediately shaking up the tactics and personnel; Charlton won their next game 4-1 at Manchester City and never looked back, going on to guarantee their second-highest placing in the top flight of English football since the war.
Thus was the faith of the Charlton board justified, as it had been eight years earlier when they put Curbishley in sole charge after an experiment with joint managers, and again two years ago in immediately offering him a new contract following relegation. An improved one will follow shortly, to go with the promise of the sort of transfer budget that Redknapp appears to have been seeking in vain.
Suddenly, for the first time since the clubs swapped divisions …